Poor Paul W.S. Anderson. He’s just a middle name away from being director Paul Thomas Anderson, but in those few letters stands a huge chasm. P.T. is an Oscar nominee acclaimed for his (often pretentious, admittedly) prestige dramas; P.W.S. is king of hack action pix: Event Horizon, Death Race, Alien vs. Predator, the Resident Evil series. His latest, Pompeii, has the slightest aura of legitimacy, what with Jared Harris, Kiefer Sutherland and Game of Thrones hottie Kit Harrington in the cast and s subject matter based on history.
And that’s where its aspirations end.
Pompeii, the Roman resort village destroyed under a pyroclastic flow following the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D., but preserved for 1,500 years under 10 feet of air-tight ash, was a tragedy of biblical proportions. But it’s most famous for virtually everyone within its walls dying — Titanic without any lifeboats. And — spoiler alert! — that’s what happens here. There is no escape; it’s a volcano, guys; exactly where are you gonna go?
That puts most of what happens leading up to the eruption filler about slaves (among them, Harrington) forced into gladiatorial combat for the amusement of a vicious Roman senator (Sutherland), who’s also scamming on the princess (Emily Browning) who, natch, is in love with Harrington. Romantic entanglements fought with swords and muscle-fitting tunics.
That last part is about the only thing of interest in the film. Harrington is a cutie, and his entrance, which lingers voluptuously on his physique, is swoon-worthy. He’s also quite short compared to the other gladiators, and sometimes his posturing seems a bit laughable. But not as laughable as the awful dialogue, the predictable plotting, the serviceable but hardly revolutionary special effects.
Hollywood has been on a sand-and-sandals kick lately, what with Game of Thrones, two Hercules movies this year, plus this one (and no doubt more like it to come), but with the PG-13 ratings that make them tamer than an episode of Spartacus, they aren’t likely to get butts in the seats, unless they show more butt. If you aren’t gonna treat us to blood or inventive scripts, we wants homoeroticism. Paul Thomas would know that.
One star. In wide release.